The Dolly Llamas started a song to fill the silence.
Rudy watched Lili exit into the Key West evening. He pulled his chair into the widening space developing around Carter. If their years of friendship had done nothing else, they’d hardened him to public scrutiny.
“That’s right,” Carter said to the last citizens defecting from his dissolving empire. “Go.”
“I’ll give you one thing,” Rudy said. “You were right about the action building more quickly here than at the Hog’s Breath.”
“Just goes to show, you can’t put a square cock in a round cunt.”
“What does that even mean?”
“You heard me.”
Kak sat down. “That was quite a display,” she said. “Why did you stop there?”
It took a lot to alter Carter’s state in any noticeable way. It always had. The alcohol thinning his bloodstream finally began to thicken his speech. “You are referring,” he said, “to my recent interaction with a certain Santeria priestess?”
“Someone should go after her,” Kak said.
Carter shook this off. “That’s the last thing anyone should do.”
“You’re not afraid she’ll do something?”
“I don’t know. Cast a spell to make your dick fall off?”
Carter poured another shot of champagne. “A little,” he said. “And I’d deserve it. I never said I wasn’t an asshole.”
“We can get that put on a shirt for you,” Kak said. “So people see you coming.”
This perked him up. “Like a disclaimer,” he said. “Keep your hands inside the ride at all times.” He grabbed Rudy by the wrist. “You believe me, right? I thought she fucked ‘em.”
“Please stop saying that,” Kak said.
“Don’t get righteous,” Carter said, releasing Rudy. “She was smart. She was on her way out. You fucked it up by telling her to stay.”
“I was waiting for anger to kick in,” Kak said.
“I guess that goes on your shirt.”
“I guess it does.”
Carter blew into his cupped hand and shook it like a high roller at a craps table, casting the imaginary dice across the table. “You really bought into the mumbo jumbo with the seashells,” he said.
This finally made sense to Rudy. “You got a reading from Lili?” he asked. “So that’s how you knew her.”
Kak looked caught in the headlights.
“Lili let me in on it,” Carter said. “Right before she dumped the baby shit on me.”
Rudy leaned over to Kak. “Why?” he asked. “What did you want to know?”
“Nothing. I was just curious.”
“What did she tell you?”
“Seashells,” Carter said. “I can get you the same result with a fifth of gin and a Magic 8 Ball.”
“Maybe,” Kak said.
“She give you the shiner?” Carter asked.
“I did that.”
“No one can hurt you like you can hurt yourself.”
“I don’t know. You hurt her very badly just now.”
Carter downed the bottle and reached for another. It left a ring of condensation on the table. He smeared it with his hand.
“Fuck you guys,” he said. “I’m going home.” He got up, lumbering out into the thickening foot traffic on the darkening street, the bottle dangling at his side. No one stopped him.
“You didn’t help her at all,” Kak said, raising her hand at the passing waitress. “Didn’t even try.”
Why should I? That was the question. What came out was, “Maybe you’ve had enough to drink.”
“Maybe you should kiss my ass,” she shot back. The letters in her words smudging like wet newsprint.
“This arrangement might work better,” he said, “if I knew what you wanted.”
“What I want,” she said, rising unsteadily, backing into a woman walking past, “is to dance.”
The woman spun around. “What’s your problem?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Kak said. “I think Thomas Merton said it best. Life can only be understood backwards. But it must be lived forwards.” She puzzled a second. “Or was it Kierkegaard?”
“Idiot,” the woman said, moving on.
Kak gave her the finger before giving up the gesture to lay her hands on the table and steady herself. “She’s right, though. I’m so full of shit. You shouldn’t believe anything I say.”
“I don’t.” “Good. Are you dancing?”
“I have something to tell you.”
“You just said I shouldn’t believe you.”
Kak let her head fall back loosely, like a ragdoll. The effect of the sudden move compromised her equilibrium, made her take a small step back to regain it. It seemed to please her. “I said don’t believe anything I say. Didn’t say don’t listen to anything I say. Caveat audiens. Let the listener beware.”
“Why do I think Lili knows more than I do now?” Rudy asked.
Kak leaned against the table and dug in the pocket of her shorts. With some effort she brought out a small conch shell and handed it to him.
“Hold Evelyn for me,” Kak said. “She’s still shook up from the bike wreck.”
He squinted into the shell’s aperture. A purple claw blocked the entrance. “There’s something inside.”
“That’s Evelyn. The crab, not the human. Stop scaring her.”
“You had a hermit crab in your pocket this whole time?”
“Rescued from her hardscrabble existence at the foot of a tyrant. Named appropriately.”
“I guess you can explain that later. Like everything else.” He slipped the shell into his pocket.
“We were so close,” Kak said.
“You and the crab?”
“No, silly. To anger. Never mind. I just want to get drunk and forget.”
“You’re drunk already.”
“Then I want to get drunker,” she snapped. “And forgetter.”
“Okay, okay. What was it you were going to tell me?”
“That it’s time to dance.” She lurched toward the bandstand.
Maybe she had it right. If there was ever a time to get drunker and forgetter, this was it. He went to the bar, ordered a mezcal and a beer, drank them, and ordered again. He leaned against the bar, taking stock of his surroundings. Wall to wall happiness. Not a care in the place. What business did he have in a happy place among happy people?
A young woman tugged at his sleeve and blurted something he couldn’t make out. She moved around in front of him. It was the same woman Kak bumped getting up, the one who asked her what her problem was. She tugged at him as she pointed toward the bandstand. Judging by her urgency, a great injustice was occurring, or so she believed.
He didn’t want to see this annoying woman. Didn’t want to hear her. He wanted to watch Kak dance, her plastic cup swinging with her hips as she moved in careless rhythm to the quickening beat.
The woman clutched at him. He wanted to swat her away but it might interrupt his watching. She thrust her lips close to his ear.
“Hey,” she yelled. “Your friend.”
Kak found him from across the room. She lit up and she waved him over. She swayed and dipped, jostling through other merry makers, bouncing off unsuspecting revelers. Beautiful.
He’d had too much to drink to risk dancing. He waved back, soaking up the sight of her, resisting the woman twisting at his collar. She pulled herself up close to his ear again.
“Hey,” she yelled, louder this time, above the clash and chaos. “Your friend.”
He ignored her. There was only Kak, dancing the way sirens must have danced on the rocks for passing sailors. Mesmerizing. Irresistible.
The woman jerked at him so violently that she opened a small rip in his shirt collar. He let her pull his head down even with hers, where she sighted down her extended arm as if it was a gun barrel. Her index finger trained on Kak.
“Your friend,” the woman yelled in his ear. “Your friend is spilling her beer.”
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